by Joshua H. Liberatore
In order to build pressure on both houses of Congress to pass the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, POTUS took his show on the road last week, making his case directly to the American people, a White House overture always fraught with that predictable array of small-town glory, logistical excess, and some private shame so particular to our goofy nation, which columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr., has presciently labeled “the United States of the Aggrieved.” In this endeavor, POTUS clearly draws on his experience as a former community organizer, not to mention two full years on the campaign trail, and seems gladly to put himself in the presence of what my father-in-law lovingly calls “the heartbeat.” That said, the national heartbeat, though it throbs in evidence of life, is sometimes very difficult to interpret in the finer points. In Elkhart, Indiana, POTUS did his level best:
Q. So I would hope in your philosophy of trying to kick-start the economy that the money gets directly to the people who are – have homes that are foreclosed, the people that have lost jobs. To try to give to a bank and give a low interest rate, and the person whose home has been foreclosed on don’t have a job, don’t help anybody. It’s a sale that nobody can take advantage of because you ain’t got no money. So I would hope and I pray that you would support the people who got you into the office – we, the people, not the fat cat – [laughter] – we, the people – to where that the money gets directly into the hands of the people who are hurting, to where that we don’t have to worry about going to the State, going to the Federal Government, standing in line somewhere. Send that check to our mailbox. [Applause] Amen, amen.
The President. Let me respond . . .
Q. So we can take it to the bank and pay that mortgage. Thank you.
The President. Let me – can everybody hear me? Hold on a second. Testing, testing. How’s that? All right. Well, let me respond in a couple of ways. Number one, when it comes to tax cuts, you are exactly right that instead of providing tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans, what I’ve been pushing in this plan is to make sure that the tax cuts goes to working families. That is not only good for those families, it’s actually good for the economy, because when you give a tax break to working families who are struggling, they will spend it on buying a new coat for the kids, or making sure that they get that car repaired that they use to get to work. When you give it to the wealthier families, they just put it away somewhere, and so it doesn’t circulate in the economy. So, tax cuts targeted to working families are the most effective means of stimulus that we can provide to the economy. (February 9, 2009)
Listening to POTUS finesse his pointed answers, often in reply to a perplexing mush of half-formed notions and generalities, I was gently reminded of my first, nervous year teaching high school, when it seemed that with so many good questions to be asked, fruitful topics to discuss, one merely fielded comments, comments from which one had to fashion in turn some kind of constructive discourse, something, well, teachable. This is a frightening proposition at times, but for his part, POTUS has proved himself a most worthy and patient Socratic, finding in even the most awkward and confused utterances some kernel of rational concern.
At other times, POTUS faced veiled hostility, and parried it with accomplished grace and admirable good humor:
Q. Thank you. My question is, you have – my name is Tara. You have come to our county and asked us to trust you, but those that you have appointed to your Cabinet are not trustworthy and can’t handle their own budget and taxes.
Audience members. Boo!
The President. No, no, no, this is a legitimate – this is a legitimate question.
Q. So I’m one of those that thinks you need to have a beer with Sean Hannity. So tell me why, from my side, we can understand . . .
Audience members. Boo!
The President. No, that’s okay. That’s okay. No, no, look, I think it was a perfectly legitimate question. First of all, I appoint – I’ve appointed hundreds of people, all of whom are outstanding Americans who are doing a great job. There are a couple who had problems before they came into my administration in terms of their taxes. Look – and I think this is a legitimate criticism that people have made, because you can’t expect one set of folks to not pay their taxes when everybody else is paying theirs. So I think that’s a legitimate concern.
I will tell you that the individuals at issue here, I know them personally, and I think these were honest mistakes. And I made sure they were honest mistakes beforehand. And one of the things I’ve discovered is, if you’re not going to appoint anybody whose ever made a mistake in your life, then you’re not going to have anybody taking your jobs. So . . . [applause]. But having said that, what I did acknowledge, and I said it publicly on just about every TV station, is something that you probably sometimes don’t hear from politicians, which is: I made a mistake. And that, because I don’t want to send the signal that they’re two sets of rules. (February 9, 2009)
In this exchange, we couldn’t help but notice a fascinating novelty: POTUS lightly scolded his audience. When the previous POTUS lost grip on his crowd – whether troops chanting “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” or shouting “Hooah” at every mention of one’s specific battalion or feisty whistle-stop faithfuls hissing at references to John Kerry’s swift-boat patriotism – he seemed almost to encourage the interruptions, even feeding them at times, all with a sinister grimace, like the C-student fanning the flames of conflagration, while his perspiring pedagogue struggles to get control of the classroom.
But to return to Elkart, and the insightful suggestion that POTUS pour libations with Sean Hannity, POTUS almost seemed to welcome the challenge, and he quickly and nimbly silenced the heckling and proceeded with his business, apparently unfazed by the spirited current of discontent betrayed by the very murmurs he did not hide from. Facing the plebs can be a messy affair, as his former rival, John McCain, learned on the campaign trail when he dismissed a confused woman who worried that the Democrats had nominated “an Arab” (she meant “Muslim,” but in either case she was wrong) by telling her, “No, ma’am, he’s a decent man, he’s a family man,” thus implying that neither Arabs nor Muslims could aspire to either category. At a similar moment of unscripted and unholy tension, our now sitting POTUS simply told his audience to behave and confronted the issue directly. And having reassumed his command of the discourse, POTUS brought levity back into the auditorium.
Now, with respect to Sean Hannity, I didn’t know that he had invited me for a beer. [Laughter] But I will take that under advisement. [Laughter] Generally, his opinion of me does not seem to be very high, but I’m always good for a beer, so . . . [laughter].
The next stop, in Fort Myers, Florida, POTUS comforted an emotional, elderly woman who confessed that she was homeless and pleaded for help.
Q. Thank you very much. I first want to say I respect you, and I am so grateful for you.
The President. Thank you.
Q. I’ve been praying for you.
The President. I believe in prayer, so I appreciate that.
Q. I have an urgent need on unemployment and homelessness, a very small vehicle for my family and I to live in. We need urgent – and the housing authority has 2-year waiting lists. And we need something more than a vehicle and the parks to go to. We need our own kitchen and our own bathroom. Please help.
The President. Well, I – listen, I – what’s your name? What’s your name?
Q. It’s Henrietta Hughes.
The President. Okay, Ms. Hughes. Well, we’re going to do everything we can to help you. But there are a lot of people like you. And we’re going to do everything we can, all right? But the – I’ll have my staff talk to you after this, after the town hall, all right? (February 10, 2009)
Ms. Hughes, it turns out, didn’t really have a question, and POTUS had the good instincts not to offer a politician’s contrivance where none was appropriate. He merely hugged her, and offered to solicit a proper follow-up. Later in the road show, when hugs wouldn’t do, though, POTUS maintained his poise as a hyperactive youth praised God and wondered if POTUS could persuade his employer, McDonald’s, to start offering health benefits.
Q. All right, Mr. President, my name is Julio Osegueda. I’m currently a student at Edison State College in my second semester. And, okay, I’ve been at the same job, which is McDonald’s, for 4 ½ years because of the fact that I can’t find another job. Now, with the fact that I’ve been there for as long as I’ve been there, do you have any plan or any idea of making one that has been there for a long time receive any better benefits than what they’ve already received?
The President. Well, I tell you what. First of all, a couple things I’d like to say. Number one, the fact that you are working as hard as you’re working at a job that I know doesn’t always pay as well as some other jobs, I think that’s a source of pride for you that shows that you’re doing the right thing. Now, the second thing is, is that you will actually benefit from the tax breaks that we’re talking about, so you’ll be able to keep a little bit of extra money because we’re going to offset your payroll tax. That’s going to help. I don’t – I assume that you’re not getting health care through your job, and so one of the things that we want to do is reform the health care system so that you all have access to health care in your job. But the thing that I’m really interested in is, you say you’re going to school, what are you studying?
Q. I’m looking to study and majoring in communications. Hopefully, being a broadcaster or a disc jockey.
The President. Well, you sound like you’ve got good communications skills.
Q. Thank you so much.
The President. So part of what we want to do is we want to make it easier for you to afford going to college by giving you this refundable tax credit for your tuition. Because young people like Julio, who have that much enthusiasm and that much energy, we’ve got to make sure that we are giving them a pathway so that they can educate themselves and go as far as their dreams take them.
In fact, young Julio’s enthusiasm was so palpable and apparently genuine that it earned him brief, if dubious, fame as a YouTube sensation, not to mention a one-day gig as an announcer for a local sporting event. Though Osegueda still lacks health insurance, and for the near future anyway, will continue to lack it, POTUS crafted his wrap-up to the forum on a high note of optimism.
Meanwhile, at the Federal Register, contrasts with the former POTUS were not far from our lips or minds as we approached the prodigious task of editing two, hour-long, “town hall” gatherings, a prime time press conference, and policy pitches at Caterpillar, Inc., in East Peoria, IL, and a highway construction site in Springfield, VA. In the midst of our labors, what we noticed was a POTUS anxious to build a little grassroots enthusiasm for a politically divisive – and stupefyingly expensive – piece of legislation, his first major “test” as President. What we noticed was the practiced comfort he displayed in front of some uncommonly rowdy audiences. What we noticed was his studied, if not native, confidence in responding to all registers of the human comedy: the inarticulate and the vulgar, the sincere and the spastic. If that’s not the mark of a uniquely gifted POTUS, I don’t know what is.